Archive for the ‘Non-Digital’ Category

Non-Digital: The Annotated Anarch

Monday, June 17th, 2019

Vampire: the Masquerade 5th Edition won the Origins Awards for Best RPG as well as the fan award. I’m very happy about this. Origins attributes V5 to Modiphius but the original three books of the game were created in-house at White Wolf, before White Wolf was subsumed into its parent company of Paradox Entertainment.

I wrote most of the Anarch book as well as some material for both the core and Camarilla books. I figured it might be interesting to go through some of the chapters I did for Anarch and the creative and design decisions involved.

I’ll write about parts I created here. The rest is mostly the work of Matthew Dawkins, who was wonderful to work with because of his immense knowledge of Vampire.

The cover of Anarch, one of V5’s two setting books. The two characters walking outside on an overcast day refers to the Thin-Blooded, vampires so far removed from the original curse of Caine that they don’t suffer from the full effects of vampirism.

Goal

I wanted to write an entertaining, readable, engaging book. It’s purpose was to explore the V5 Anarch idea of vampires living enmeshed in human communities as well as give ideas and prompts people could use in their own games.

Because Anarchs don’t live apart from humanity like the Camarilla does, Anarch characters, groups and concepts must necessarily connect closely to human experience. Because of this, I sought to bring the material in the book closer to reality than has been customary in the World of Darkness.

In this, I followed the style of my Vampire larp work, especially in Parliament of Shadows. It was a Vampire larp I did with Maria Pettersson and Bjarke Pedersen, played in 2017, about how the Camarilla wields its political power in concrete terms. It was played partially in the real European Parliament and featured two actual MEPs playing themselves.

An in-game scene at the European Parliament. Photo: Tuomas Puikkonen

In earlier editions, the Camarilla, the Anarchs and the Sabbat have been the main three factions of the vampire world, with the Ashirra maintaining a presence as well. When you read older Vampire books, the Camarilla and the Sabbat come across as strong and distinctive while the Anarchs remain more marginal and the Ashirra a side note.

Since in V5 the main focus is initially on the Camarilla and the Anarchs as the two sects that define the setting I took it as my task to give the Anarchs some punch. The revolution had to feel dangerous.

This was part of the wider project of developing Vampire’s setting to work better for the default character types of the game, meaning Neonate vampires. A resurgent Anarch movement fighting against young Camarilla Kindred who inherited the empires of their Elders is more dynamic than the stagnant setup of earlier editions.

I also wanted the revolutionary politics of the Anarchs to connect more to real-life revolutionary thinking. Reading older Anarch books, I often felt the Anarchs were portrayed as politically mild and ambitionless, beggars asking for crumbs form the table of the Camarilla. I tried to add some rigor.

I can’t really claim to be a political activist but I do believe I’m the only Anarch writer who has broken into a NATO airbase for the purpose of bringing attention to American nuclear weapons placed illegally in Belgium. (I wrote the very first article of my career as a journalist about that experience. It’s here.)

The last time there was a Nazi march in Helsinki on 6.12.2018, I ran five blocks alongside it yelling for them to fuck off. (I had to stop because I’d had dental surgery that morning and was bleeding from my mouth. Also there were Swedish Nazis there, and those guys are genuinely quite terrifying.)

I felt this small real life experience helped bring some new perspective into what the Anarchs can be in Vampire.

The content plan for the book was put together by V5 lead designer Kenneth Hite. My task was to make that plan into reality. This was a challenging task because of the wealth of both real-life material and Vampire lore referenced and I ended up doing a massive amount of research.

Chapters

The individual chapters in Anarch are short, often just a two-page spread. This was a blessing because it made it easier to avoid the verbose word bloat of so many roleplaying game books.

The plan was to make almost all of the book 100% in-game text, so prose style played an important part. I tried to vary this as much as possible to make it more interesting to read, so there are diary entries, chat logs, straight prose, manifestos, and so on.

All the examples from the Anarch book are from the original version, not the current redacted Modiphius version, unless otherwise noted. You can check the differences between the versions here.

Introduction

When I first got into Vampire in the mid-Nineties, I paid close attention to the song lyrics quoted in the books. I literally took down the names of bands and went to the record store to buy the albums. I found a lot of great music this way.

However, there was one quote which I has unable to place, although I tried. That’s the one on the back cover of the first edition of the Vampire corebook:

Detail from the back cover of the original 1991 edition of Vampire: the Masquerade.

Given that my task was to rescue the Anarchs from mildness, I was very happy that the very first Vampire book was defined by such an Anarch-appropriate quote!

That’s why I had to include it in the Introduction to my Anarch book:

Page 5 / Anarch.

What Are We

This chapter presents a collection of jumbled, weird ideas of what being a vampire might mean. In Vampire: the Masquerade, there’s a well established mythology where Caine was the first vampire, cursed by God to wander the night. However, because Anarchs are often disconnected from vampire traditions, they make up their own explanations instead, some of them bizarre.

This is one:

Page 9 / Anarch.

In my family we had a woman called The Aunt, an important figure in my childhood. She was an ardent Christosophist. Christosophy is an offshoot of Theosophy. She tried to teach me some of her worldview and while it never quite stuck, echoes are now on the page of this Vampire book, although I don’t think she would approve of the vampiric insinuation.

Monsters of the Recent Past

Here Anarch activist Rudi talks about trying to understand vampire history. You may wish to apply these same ideas to your favorite news sources. Rudi is actually Gangrel. The mistake is mine.

Page 12 / Anarch.

The City On the Sea

The myth of Carthage is an integral part of the story of the Anarchs. This chapter represents a revisionist take on it, which I’m sure you noticed if you’ve read versions published in earlier Vampire books. The idea is to explore what happens when a modern Anarch vampire applies the idea quoted above under “Monsters of the Recent Past” to vampire history.

What does the history of Carthage look like when you assume it’s Ventrue propaganda?

I did some research into the real history of Carthage and it turns out there is some disagreement among historians about the reliability of the standard account of Carthaginians as terrible baby murderers. In this real-life analysis, the sources for the worst stories are Roman, and Rome was at war with Carthage. Traditionally through human history, lies have been told about enemies. Often accusing them of being baby murderers.

In this analysis, the explanation for why there are archaeological finds with concentrations of the remains of children in Carthage is that they are cemeteries, not ritual abattoirs.

I’m not enough of a historian to know what’s true, but I figured it would be interesting to couple this real-life disagreement about historical sources with the analyses of Anarchs seeking to make sense of their history.

Looking For Tyler

The Movement needs heroes, villains and celebrities, characters who define what it means to be an Anarch. I tried to use existing canon characters when possible, and some of those are pretty great.

One of them is Tyler, one of the very few Anarch Elders present from the time of the First Anarch Revolt. In this chapter, I tried to make her into a mythological figure, an Anarch saint who can appear everywhere and nowhere.

Since she has no Domain, no known philosophy, allies or affiliation beyond that of being the original Anarch you can project whatever dreams of revolution you want onto her. Just like people do with real symbolic figures!

Reign of Terror / ’68

When you read the history of Anarchs in older Vampire books, they sound kinda depressing. A lot of disappointments, not many victories. To me, this is not about the historical events but the emotional tenor of what it means to be an Anarch. I wanted there to be moments of glory in Anarcb history, times when being an Anarch was great.

These two chapters concerning the history of Paris offered a good opportunity for inserting a little revolutionary joy into the proceedings.

24 / Anarch.

I went to art school in France in the mid 00’s. Some of these old men and women who’d experienced the glory days of ’68 were still around.

Personally, the closest I’ve ever gotten to this kind of joy was in my early twenties, around 2000. In Finland on Independence Day, the President hosts a reception for the national elite. This is a stodgy televised event where you can see generals and parliament members shake hands with the President in a long line.

At that time, there was a strong culture of protest around this event. The protest was known as “Kansan kuokkavierasjuhlat”, “The People’s Gatecrashing Party”, with activists trying to get the demonstration in front of the presidential palace and the police doing their best to keep them away.

These are some of the rowdiest demonstrations I’ve ever participated in. (Finnish demonstrations are usually pretty staid.) The police charging the crowds with shield walls, people running the streets to try to outflank the police cordons, arrests. However, the thing I remember best is the camaraderie and feeling of purpose in the crowd. It was not a somber crowd, there was energy despite the December cold and overwhelming police presence.

Being online is often a lonely experience, making you feel like you’re alone in a world of assholes and malign fools. Being physically part of a protest crowd has often made me feel the opposite of that, when I see all these different people around me, all with a united vision.

Of course, since this is a Vampire book and vampires poison everything, the joy of the Anarchs is not quite the same joy as what I experience in a protest.

Ten Nights That Shook the World

In old World of Darkness books, the focus of the setting is on the U.S., which makes sense because it was originally an American roleplaying game. Areas outside the U.S. were also featured, but often their treatment was sketchier. One area where this is particularly noticeable is Eastern Europe and the role of the Soviet Union in vampire history.

This is also reflected in who the game is for. In 1991 when Vampire first came out, Russian roleplayers didn’t have a lot of visibility in American roleplaying game circles. Today, Eastern European countries have large Vampire fanbases.

From where I live, it’s four hours by train to St. Petersburg, so for this reason also Russia is more of a real place to me than it was to early Nineties American roleplaying game writers.

One of the guidelines we had for Vampire 5th Edition was that when it comes to historical events, vampires are parasites riding the current of human events, not secret masters in control of everything. The motivations for this concept are twofold: To make vampires more parasitical and monstrous and to avoid shifting the blame for human horrors onto supernatural entities.

However, in terms of the vampire history of the Soviet Union, this creates a problem, because past books have asserted that a “Brujah Council” controlled the Soviet Union.

This chapter represents my attempt at squaring the circle. How to keep the canon intact while keeping the blame for the horrors of Soviet atrocities were it belongs?

My solution was to focus on the idea that in a totalitarian state, there might not be a big moral distinction between a human KGB boss or a vampire KBG boss. The idea is that the Soviet Brujah were young revolutionaries who became corrupted while the larger human structure around them stratified into a totalitarian state. They didn’t control the revolution or secretly cause it to happen, but just participated in it the same as ordinary humans. Afterwards, they floated to the top because as vampires, they were uniquely suited to survive in this new environment. Yet even then, they didn’t really define the system. They were just another power block among many.

This is the kind of problem you have with working on an established IP. It was important to me to respect the material that came before, but also try to reinterpret it so it would fit the new vision for how Vampire works.

Page 27 / Anarch.

Dee’s Blood Guide to the Anarch Free States

Page 30 / Anarch. Detail from a illustration by Tia Ihalainen.

I read a lot of old Vampire books while I was writing Anarch. I noticed that while especially for an early Nineties roleplaying game Vampire had a lot of women in it, the trend where women are hot and men are cool was still present. For this reason, I wanted to put a little objectification of hot Anarch dudes into this book. In this chapter, it’s present in the text, but more importantly in the illustrations by the wonderful Jer Carolina. We talked about what would be the right look and the conclusion was to go full Tom of Finland.

Walk Among Us

Each new section of the book is introduced by a little dialogue about the themes of the following chapters. In these, I really tried to break away from the previous tradition of Vampire writing and make them light, engaging and contemporary.

Page 35 / Anarch.

This exchange is a reference to Victor Pelevin’s excellent vampire novel Empire V. It has a wonderful moment where two vampires discuss what’s the appropriate way to dress now that you’re a vampire.

Enlightenment in Blood

In V5, the two core factions are the Camarilla and the Anarchs. To give the Anarchs a little more bite, in the new setting material the revolution got into full swing. To make this more concrete, one of the three most important Camarilla cities in Europe, Berlin, fell to the Anarchs in a bloody and chaotic insurrection. This meant that in V5, only Paris remained of the old pillars of the Camarilla. (London fell to the Second Inquisition.)

The Anarch revolution in Berlin was the subject of a major urban larp I did in 2017. It was produced by Participation Design Agency and created with the license and creative collaboration of White Wolf to integrate new setting ideas in advance of the publication of V5.

In Enlightenment in Blood the larp, the goal was to create a full-scale simulation of the revolution on the real streets of the actual city of Berlin. To make this happen, we had a dozen locations in the Friedrichshain area, including two nightclubs and a church.

In-game photo from Enlightenment in Blood / Tuomas Hakkarainen.

This chapter in the Anarch book is a reflection of those same events, of the fall of the Camarilla and the messiness of revolution.

Page 36 / Anarch.

Dawn of Satan’s Millennium

In Kenneth Hite’s original plan for the Anarch book, this chapter was supposed to be about Norwegian black metal vampires. However, in Finland we also have an extremely strong metal scene, so I decided to locate the chapter closer to home.

Page 49 / Anarch.

Much of the specific detail in the chapter is based on the documentary Loputon Gehennan liekki. You might think I made up some of the weirder details in the chapter, but think again…

In this chapter, I introduced the Anarch journalist character Chinasa Adeyemi. I have a background in journalism so I wanted to have a point-of.-view character through whom I could write a few different types of articles. Thus I made the Adeyemi chapters into approximations of Vice, the Economist and other styles. After all, a good journalist can adapt to the idiom of the publication.

The Night Circus

Here’s a fun biographical detail about me: I come from a circus family, in the sense that the circus was the family business for most of my life. My mother is a circus director and I’ve worked all kinds of odd jobs from selling popcorn to being a fireguard for when there’s a fire-based number.

The circus material in this chapter is entirely romanticized, though. The one true detail is when the trapeze artist plummets to the ground, and even it’s not really true. When I was in art school I directed an experimental circus performance which ended with the fall of the trapeze artist. The reference here is an echo of that.

Is It OK To Feed Vitae To a Baby?

In the plans for Anarchs in V5, there was an unusual focus on cleavers, vampires who try to retain a human existence to the point of raising families. Of course, this endeavor is doomed to end in tragedy. The reason for this attention on cleavers was to highlight the worse sides of Anarchs so as to avoid making them the “good guys” in a game that has no good guys.

I don’t have children myself so I immersed myself in Finnish baby forums and the style of discussion there. Based on that material, I wrote this chapter as a parody of those forums.

In the Anarch book, this has been the most polarizing thing I’ve written. Modiphius chose to censor it from the current version of the PDF they sell. I’ve also gotten more positive feedback about this than any other thing in the book. Most of these comments have come from parents.

Page 66 / Anarch.

The cleaver theme was also explored in the chapter “Delusions of Humanity” (page 62), about a woman who became a vampire because she was hired as an au pair to a cleaver family.

Ni Dieu, Ni Maitre

The classic slogan in French. It’s also a reference to this:

I’ve been a fan of French hiphop ever since I found a couple of IAM albums from the Helsinki municipal library system when I was a teenager. I wanted to have a little of that in the book so I spent an inordinate amount of time figuring out the references in this chapter, tiny as they are.

The chapter is a lesbian love story between an Anarch and a Camarilla vampire. After reviewing the existing prominent Anarch canon characters, I made a policy decision to make almost all the new ones I created women, hopefully helping a little with the gender balance of the game’s setting.

The Ministry of Love

This is the last thing I wrote for the Anarch book, some time after I’d completed the main part of my writing task in the spring of 2018. It was during this time that bizarre rumors started to circulate on American roleplaying Twitter that Swedish Nazis were sending secret messages coded in the dice roll examples of Vampire playtest scenarios.

I found this quite insulting, and I wrote this chapter in that state of mind. As a result, it has two Ministry vampires talking about the pros and cons of using alt-right people as pawns:

Page 91 / Anarch.

This same theme was explored more thoroughly in the chapter “Build a Better World (For You)” (page 112).

Whatever Happened to the Red Question?

Before this book, there were three setting books about the Anarchs for Vampire: Anarch Cookbook (1993), Guide to the Anarchs (2002) and Anarchs Unbound (2014). The city sourcebook Los Angeles By Night (1994) is also significant because it shows what Anarch ideas mean in practice.

Out of these books, the two early ones, Anarch Cookbook and Los Angeles By Night, informed my approach to the material most because in them, the Anarchs were more politically aggressive.

The last Anarch book before mine, Anarchs Unbound, moved the action from the streets to online, spending a lot of time on Anarch hackers who used their knowledge of modern networks to stymie archaic vampire Elders.

This is something where Vampire essentially did a U-turn when we came to the V5 edition. Instead of vampire hackers, online was suddenly the domain of the Second Inquisition hunting for undead to kill and capture.

In Anarchs Unbound, the vanguard of the vampire hackers is the group Red Question. I wanted to keep the setting material of Anarchs Unbounded as part of the new Anarch book but reinterpreted so it’s part of the Movement’s history. In this case, the Red Question now represents the heady days of online freedom before the Second Inquisition crackdown.

Another detail in this chapter is the question of responsibility for the 2008 financial crisis. The older book suggests that it was caused by Anarch vampires of the Red Question, but following the idea that human evil shouldn’t be ascribed to vampires, I muddied the waters:

Page 93 / Anarch.

Revelations of the Dark Mother

For my money, Revelations of the Dark Mother (1998) is the best individual book published for the first three editions of Vampire. I always felt it was a shame it’s ideas were not really integrated into the rest of the vampire line except in a sporadic, scattershot fashion.

To me, it seemed obvious that the religious ideas of the Bahari would find a lot of adherents among the modern Anarch Movement. I tried to bring that out in this chapter.

Unfortunately I’m not entirely satisfied with my efforts. I don’t think I quite managed to live up to the verve and style of the original book.

Still, I did my best:

Rudi’s Army

This chapter features a group of Copenhagen vampires who are all young antifa types having the kind of semi-formalized activist meeting that I’ve also participated in a few times.

A lot of the basic energy of this chapter comes from the simple: “What would you do if you became a vampire?” -type questions. I mean, Nazis are scary because they can beat you up, but if you’re a vampire…

Page 107 / Anarch.

Electric Vitae Acid Test

This chapter is about using humor to combat the Camarilla. It was hit by censorship in the new versions of the PDFs. Check if you can see the difference:

Page 127 / both versions of Anarch.

Eat the Rich!

This is a book with a lot of different characters speaking in their own voices, but two in particular define the dichotomies of the Anarch Movement: The ideologue Salvador Garcia (a classic canon character) and the killer Agata Starek (created by me).

Garcia wants to build the Movement into something sustainable, yet he’s stymied by the fact that vampires are destructive parasites. Agata Starek is a nihilistic destroyer who can’t create anything of lasting value, yet is very effective in making the Camarilla fear the Anarchs. When Salvador Garcia fails you, Agata Starek is there to destroy those who hurt you.

Both are also featured on Loresheets at the end of the book.

I put a lot of thought into the creation of Agata because I wanted her to fulfill a very specific role: To show the joy and terror of a vampire revolution. Agata is a rarity among vampires in the sense that she’s essentially a happy person, content to Diablerize Camarilla pretty boys while others do the work of keeping the Movement together.

I was also influenced by this article about the limits of female characters as positive role models. I wanted to make Agata into a terrifying wild cannon, a psycho who’s exploits are interesting to read about even though she’s beyond ordinary human morality.

Page 133 / Anarch.

Non-Digital: Writing About the Gehenna War

Wednesday, June 12th, 2019

I worked as a freelancer on Vampire: the Masquerade 5th Edition, originally put together in-house by the new Swedish incarnation of White Wolf. (Now subsumed into the parent company Paradox Entertainment.) As part of that work, I contributed the chapter “The Gehenna War” to the Camarilla setting book.

The discussions before, during and after the release of the game books have been tumultuous, at one point escalating even to the office of the President of Chechnya. (Here’s an article in Finnish about it, and another one in Russian. Google Translate works for both.)

In the aftermath of the release of the books, control over the direction of Vampire 5th Edition was passed to the licensee company Modiphius, although ownership of the property remains with Paradox Entertainment.

Modiphius has made numerous changes to the already published books, rewriting the original material into more conventional form and censoring entirely some chapters. (Such as one I wrote for the Anarch book called “Is It Okay To Feed Vitae To a Baby?”)

The cover of the Camarilla book.

I was looking over the changes made to my chapter about the Gehenna War in the Camarilla book. They are extensive, the rewrite made by Khaldoun Khelil. What’s extremely unusual is that Khelil also wrote a post on his Patreon explaining his reasoning. It was a fascinating read, and a rare glimpse into the strange project of remaking an already published setting book.

(You can read Khelil’s whole post here. It’s for backers only but that just means you should become backers!)

Inspired by Khelil’s text, I decided to write my own post, detailing the thinking that originally went into the chapter.

Incidentally, the presence of differing versions of the books, including print versions, will surely make for an interesting collector’s market down the line!

A comparison of the original and the edited version of the opening paragraphs of the chapter.

Game Design Ideas

In the world of Vampire: the Masquerade, vampires become more powerful as they age. Young vampires are oppressed by their elders. While this is a resonant setting element, through the years of actual Vampire play it has also created a lot of trouble. The default character in Vampire is young, and a stifling hierarchy makes it harder to find opportunities for character agency.

For this reason, the 5th edition of Vampire introduced new ideas into the setting of the game. A mysterious supernatural Beckoning was calling ancient vampires to the Middle East, where a Gehenna War was being fought between the vampire sects of the Camarilla and the Sabbat, often through human proxies.

This in turn thrust the old hierarchies of the Camarilla in chaos, revealing lots of opportunities for player characters to do something interesting. For example, take over the empire of political power built by an Elder who suddenly decides to decamp to Baghdad.

The idea was to make Elders rarer and more terrifying, empower Neonates while retaining the idea of ancient monsters and their malign influence, and create dynamic story opportunities.

The chapter “The Gehenna War” is in the Camarilla book to make this real and work it into the setting. It’s an in-character view of what it means in practice when both humanity and young vampires get swept in events initiated by those vastly more powerful than themselves.

Thematically, the idea behind setting the Gehenna War in the Middle East was built to mirror the way foreign powers have had their proxy wars in the region. Thus, the local vampire sect of the Ashirra is trying to deal with a conflict fought by two foreign sects, the Camarilla and the Sabbat. As in real life, the war is fought over resources. Because this is Vampire, the resource is not oil but the slumbering tombs of ancient monsters who lived in the region thousands of years ago when this was one of the cradles of human civilization.

Since the core nature of vampires is parasitical, the idea is that they are not the instigators of these conflicts (since human evil is human evil) but parasites exploiting them.

In game design terms, the idea of having a very specific place for the Gehenna War was so that two things happen: Ancient vampires become much rarer in some parts of the world, while concentrating in one part of the world. This would make a game set in New York or Cologne or Helsinki into a playground for Neonates while transforming the Middle East into a unique setting where young characters can interact with ancient monsters all over the place.

In the rewrite, the Gehenna War has been decentralized so it no longer centers on the Middle East. This obviates its original design purpose.

By this stage in the chapter, the differences are significant. Palestine gets erased.

Details

In time of the 2003 Iraq war, I was 23. The war was a seminal event in shaping my worldview. It demonstrated how American rhetoric and power interact, how wars get started, and how media consensus is sometimes spectacularly wrong.

Because of this, I wanted to make the viewpoint character of the Gehenna War chapter into an Iraqi man who had left his country as a human and returned as a vampire. For the personal details, I relied a lot on two interviews I did some years ago with the Iraqi novelist Hassan Blasim, about whom I wrote in Helsingin Sanomat. (I really recommend his novels and short stories, they are wonderfully good.)

Although the chapter I wrote has nothing to do with Blasim, a few individual details in his story stuck in my mind and I figured human detail was necessary to balance the real life stories of war and fictional stories of vampires.

The viewpoint character was also designed to demonstrate the core ideas of the new 5th edition in that he was a Neonate Archon. The thinking here was that with the deepening alliance between the Camarilla and the Ashirra, the historically European Camarilla needed young people who could speak Arabic. Anyone older would be too important to do the grunt work.

I wanted to make the reason the point-of-view character was made into a vampire somewhat arbitrary and impersonal to underline another key setting point: The Camarilla is a society of monsters. Thus, our point of view should reflect that, with an regular guy looking into this terrible world that has taken over his life. This basic idea carries through the whole chapter.

Instead of sending anyone important into the midst of the Gehenna War, the Camarilla makes a refugee into a vampire, dubs him an Archon and drops him into the middle of the horror. Conveniently, this could also be something that might be basis for a game with player characters as the Archon and his entourage.

Palestine

During the chapter, the viewpoint character travels around the Middle East, encountering increasingly horrific things as the nature of the Gehenna War reveals itself. The Camarilla, the Ashirra, the Sabbat, all those Elders and their massive egos in one place.

I placed one scene in Ramallah, Palestine, and introduced a local Ashirra vampire character called Leila for reasons that combine personal and political. In 2012, I traveled to Ramallah to play in the first big international larp organized in Palestine, Till Death Do Us Part. It was a deeply profound experience, and had a lasting effect on my life.

(They are organizing a rerun of the game. The sign up is open right now, and I really recommend it.)

After Till Death Do Us Part, I became part of the organizing group of the Palestinian-Finnish larp Halat hisar, originally run in 2013 and later in 2016. The larp was an attempt to create an experience of the Palestinian political reality in Finland, and it was made by Palestinian and Finnish designers. The Guardian writes about it here, among other things.

Because of these experiences, I learned a lot about the Palestinian situation. I also noticed that Palestinians tend to get erased in American and European media productions, often because their mere existence is seen as “political”. For this reason, I wanted to put in a Palestinian character, to fight in my very small way against this erasure.

Unfortunately, in the rewrite, that section of the chapter has been scrubbed clean of Palestine.

Terrors

In an extremely basic way, one of the guiding principles behind my writing in this chapter and everything else I did for Vampire is that vampires are monsters. They might think that they are good people, but in truth they are poisonous parasites who destroy everything they touch.

In the Gehenna War chapter, the viewpoint character is rescued by one of Vampire’s classic signature characters, Fatima al-Faqadi, an ancient assassin. He comes to believe in her because he falls for the illusion she represents. Yet in the end, she is just another ancient horror. By that point, however, it’s too late to step out of the world of terrors. Once you’ve become a vampire, there are no happy endings.

Reading the rewrite of my work, it often felt like it hearkened back to an older conception of what Vampire: the Masquerade is and how it works. We’ll see how that works out in terms of the upcoming wider slate of V5 material.

You can check out my original take on the Gehenna War chapter for yourself in the first printed run of the Camarilla book or in the earlier PDF versions. The new version is in the PDFs that have been sent out this spring, and probably in future print editions of the book.

It’s interesting to look at the comparisons and consider how they change both the game world, the politics and meaning of the game, and the design functions setting ideas have!

When I and the other writers wrote the three original books, everything we did was interconnected and meshed together. Thus, if you’re not careful, when you change one part it might throw another out of alignment. For this reason, my original Palestinian Leila still appears in the books, as a little shadow of what used to be…

At least until an editor finds her and she gets redacted in the next PDF update.

Non-Digital: Itras by – the Menagerie

Monday, October 1st, 2018

The Menagerie is a supplement for the Norwegian roleplaying game Itras by, created by Ole Peder Giæver and Martin Bull Gudmundsen. However, if you’re familiar with roleplaying game supplements, this is definitely something else. As befits the surreal nature of Itras by, the Menagerie calls into question the very meaning of expanding on a published roleplaying game.

I have a lot of love for Itras by. A highly literate yet light roleplaying game set in the dreamlike city its named after, the original core book played with mood and prose, guidance and suggestions much more than banal game mechanics.

In 2009, I acted as the publisher for the Finnish translation of the game, under the title Itran kaupunki. A key motivation for me to have the game translated was so I could read it myself. It hadn’t appeared in English yet and I didn’t read Norwegian. It proved well worth the effort!

The Menagerie is a feast of contributions from a large variety of different designers, writers and illustrators, all coming together to offer their own take on Itras by. In addition to being material you can use to run games, it’s also a masterclass in game design, peeling back the layers of decision-making that go into making any particular choice.

Perhaps the clearest example of this is Jason Morningstar’s article Itras by Without Itras by. In it, he goes through the deck of cards the game uses as a tool for inspiration and resolution of events. He demonstrates how it can be used in other contexts and what kind of effects different modifications create.

It’s also a wonderfully heterogenous book. Roleplaying communities have an unfortunate tendency to devolve into depressing little cliques who all hate each other, but the Menagerie boasts contributions from a highly disparate group of people, both geographically and in terms of design style. There are Norwegians and Poles, Americans and New Zealanders, Storygames alumni and OSR aficionados.

The book even includes complete games based on Itras by. An example is Grimasques by Banana Chan, a freeform game demonstrating that good design and focus on a single element of the Itras by world can produce something very clearly defined even in this surreal environment.

For me, two of the most affecting chapters in the book came at the very end. Martin Bull Gudmundsen has a beautiful personal essay reflecting on his own background, Asperger’s syndrome and the particular nature of surreal game design. He also wrote a short fictional text together with Itras by co-designer Ole Peder Giæver as an allegory about making a game like this, a suitable ending to a book full of strange wonders.

Non-Digital: Analog Game Studies vol. 2

Thursday, September 27th, 2018

I’ve read the second of the Analog Game Studies books in my quest to catch up on the series. You can check out the book here or read the articles here.

After the introductory first book, this second volume is where the series really gets going. It feels like in addition to being collections of articles about non-digital games, the series also engages in trying to define what “analog games” means. Reading this book, the divide into digital and analog games feels arbitrary, yet also necessary to carve out space for all the types of games that often get excluded from discussions of games.

The book starts strong with veteran boardgame designer Bruno Faidutti’s essay Postclonial Catan. In it, he subjects European-style boardgames to a postcolonial analysis, writing from his own perspective as a designer of Eurogames. To me, the interest of the essay lies in not just the analysis, but also on the design perspective on why Eurogames seem so full of national stereotypes, often cringeworthy.

In other articles, reading Anglo-American writers about Eurogames is strange because it reveals such deep cultural fissures. For example, there’s a critique of Eurogames like Settlers of Catan in that they avoid violence as a subject matter. This creates a false representation of history because when you remove violence from colonialism, for example, and reduce it to nothing but trade, you whitewash historical crimes.

This critique is obviously totally sensible! Yet the rule against war and combat is ingrained in me from my own childhood, from how my mother and father and the worldview I learned at home. The idea that family games should be violence-free is something that makes sense to me on a gut level. It feels shocking to read it being talked about so casually, as if it was just some weird European quirk.

Closer to my home field of roleplaying games and larp, there’s the article Out of the Dungeons: Representations of Queer Sexuality in RPG Source Books by Jaakko Stenros and Tanja Sihvonen. I’d seen it years ago at Ropecon in presentation form, but it was interesting to read it properly. Queer sexualities have been dealt with in roleplaying games in a messy, often weird way, and I remember some of the specific examples from my own roleplaying history.

The idea of roleplaying or larping with an audience has kept recurring in different contexts through the years, from art galleries who wanted art larp to be audience friendly to the modern phenomenon of roleplaying as a YouTube spectacle. There’s three excellent articles in the book which expand on this in ways that make me think our previous conceptions of the subject have been simplistic. These articles show that if you really want to do this, roleplay with an audience, there’s a whole art to it.

The articles are Moyra Turkington’s A Look Back From the Future: Play and Performance in Biosphere 2013, Sarah Lynne Bowman’s Connecting Stage Acting, Role-Playing and Improvisation and Lisa Quoresimo’s Joy and Meaning in Theater Games. What I especially like about them is the basis in actual experiences with this kind of work.

This is another great collection, well worth your time. The only real issue with it is that the articles were originally posted online, and a few contain references to illustrations or other features not included in the book.

Non-Digital: Slowquest and Roleplaying Game Culture

Saturday, September 15th, 2018

I was at the Helsinki Comics Festival recently, lured in by the promise of roleplaying game related indie stuff. The Australian illustrator Bodie Hartley was there with a series of little booklets published under the title Slowquest. They’re interesting because while they are not roleplaying games, they are most definitely roleplaying game culture.

My first roleplaying game was the red box edition of Dungeons & Dragons. I grew up steeped in roleplaying game culture and it has informed my practice as a designer. As a child, I read scifi and fantasy, went to cons and shook my head at the Satanic panic.

However, the actual toolbox of roleplaying games, the design concepts that make up the artform, don’t have to be connected to this culture. You can make and play roleplaying games even if you have never heard of Legolas or Shadowrun. I’ve seen this in practice on the larp side of things working with Palestinian designers, because the history of larp in Palestine comes from an NGO background rather than as an artifact of local geek culture.

My first book about roleplaying games, Roolipelimanifesti in 2005, was in some ways a reaction against the way I felt roleplaying game culture limited the design space of roleplaying games. In retrospect, it’s almost like teenage rebellion, a statement of identity against the stifling omnipresence of dragons and other genre elements.

In the years since 2005, I’ve made my peace with the culture around roleplaying games. This is good because now I can enjoy Slowquest, which is great! The main attraction are the two quest books The Goblin Guard and Meet the Wizard, choose your own adventure -style stories in which you navigate simple and funny adventure scenarios. They are simple and charming, like emanations from the collective subconscious consisting of all the cultural artifacts populating the world of roleplaying games.

Other booklets include the monster descriptions for the Swamp Goblin, the Mushrump and the Sentient Ooze. Another favorite is the booklet Some Wizards Volume I, a collection of wizards.

Non-Digital: Our History

Friday, September 7th, 2018

Me standing under a portrait of myself and those of other Finnish roleplayers. Photo: Jaakko Stenros

The Finnish Museum of Games opened a new exhibit on the history of tabletop roleplaying games in Finland yesterday. It’s wonderful stuff and I expected the feelings of nostalgia revisiting all these old things brought me. But the real surprise was in how much there was I’d never heard of before. The exhibit takes an extremely comprehensive, diligent approach to its subject, and because of this even a veteran roleplayer who lived through the era will find something new.

Verald is the only Swedish-language roleplaying game published in Finland. I’d never heard of it before seeing it at the exhibit.

From a personal perspective, it felt strange to see parts of my own history move behind the glass of a museum exhibit. Sometimes literally, as I was startled to find a character brief I’d written for another player years ago on display. It was from the tabletop campaign Tähti by Mike Pohjola, later published as a book.

Other times, the maps drawn by hand on graph paper were not from my campaigns, but they could well have been. They’re from people who started playing as kids, often American fantasy roleplaying games translated into Finnish. It’s funny to imagine what those kids would have said if told that in a few decades, their squiggles would be museum-worthy.

Many of these relics are from people who would become game designers themselves, including James Edward Raggi IV of Lamentations of the Flame Princess fame who’s old home campaign maps are now on display.

Among the exhibited roleplaying game magazines, the most amazing find was the Floppy Magazine from 1987.

This list of “killed things” starts with “1 old person”.

Designer Mike Pohjola decided to be the first to break in the table at the center of the exhibit room by spontaneously conjuring up a Myrskyn sankarit game.

From a wider perspective, the exhibit is part of an interesting process where as we grow older, we become more conscious of our own history. We want to preserve it and make it understood. It’s wonderful that the exhibit is not only about the history of games as publications, but makes a serious effort to include the actual experiences of people playing roleplaying games.

This is especially important in Finland because the emergent play culture didn’t always reflect the cultures that produced the games we started with. A young kid in Helsinki or Kouvola automatically played D&D with different assumptions than the American designers who made it.

Non-Digital: Analog Game Studies vol. 1

Saturday, September 1st, 2018

I’ve worked a lot on tabletop games this year because of my involvement with Vampire: the Masquerade 5th Edition, and I developed a yearning for the kind of design writing about tabletop games that we have for larp in the form of the Knutepunkt books.

As sometimes happens, it turns out this already existed, and had for some time. I found the first two Analog Game Studies collections at Gencon, and just finished reading the first one, published in 2016. It collects the articles originally published online in the journal in 2014.

This is good stuff, and I’m happy to know that there’s already a few years worth more out for me to read!

From the perspective of a reader like me who’s interested in roleplaying game design, the highlights from vol. 1 are Jason Morningstar’s article Visual Design as Metaphor: The Evolution of a Character Sheet and Evan Torner’s Uncertainty in Analog Role-Playing Games.

Morningstar’s article takes a classic design question of the character sheet and goes through his own process in developing one for the game Night Witches. Torner writes about uncertainty from many different perspectives, using published games as examples. I especially liked the consideration of uncertainty created by other players, as that’s a design space close to my heart.

Other interesting articles include Nathan Altice’s The Playing Card Platform and Sarah Lynne Bowman and Evan Torner’s Post-Larp Depression. Both felt like the kind of baseline articles about a given subject that can now be referenced in a thousand articles in the future.

The last article in the book is Lizzie Stark’s The Curse of Writing Autobiographical Games, in which she writes about designing a game called The Curse. The subject is deeply personal and the essay is a wonderful, clear example of how difficult subject matter becomes design.

Non-Digital: Werewolf: the Apocalypse, an Appreciation

Sunday, December 20th, 2015

In the Nineties, there was a time when radical ecological activism was an entirely suitable subject for American children’s entertainment. The best example of this is the cartoon series Captain Planet and the Planeteers. The spirit of the planet, Gaia, assembles a team who can combine into a superhero called Captain Planet who then stops”eco-villains” such as Verminous Skum and Dr. Blight.

Other examples are the G.I.Joe spin-off Eco-Warriors and togic sludge themed things like the Turtles and Toxic Avenger. The lesson of Captain Planet and Eco-Warriors is that it’s entirely acceptable to fight against polluters and ecological criminals with force.

That lesson seems to have faded from children’s tv shows as the global environmental situation has become worse. One of the ironies of pop culture is that now in the age of global warming when we really need him, Captain Planet is nowhere to be found.

image-193599-full

A Ron Spencer illustration from the 20th Anniversary Edition of Werewolf the Apocalypse showing a reasoned debate with the employees of the polluting corporation Pentex

In the Nineties, there was one place where the fight against pollution was taken to its logical extreme, and that was the gloriously insane roleplaying game Werewolf: the Apocalypse. Reading the game now, it seems incredible that this was actually published, and that it was a mainstream roleplaying game.

In Werewolf, using force to stop polluters was not only moral, but a holy mission.

In the core book, limiting yourself to standard character options, you can make a werewolf Neo-Nazi killing machine who’s goal in life is to mutilate as many fast food employees and oil company workers as possible. You see, in the world of Werewolf, people who work at environmentally damaging or irresponsible companies are often possessed by evil spirits serving a mythical force of corruption called the Wyrm. This way, the enemies have been conveniently dehumanized and can be subjected to ultraviolence without any moral problems.

The Neo-Nazis are one of Werewolf’s tribes. They are called Get of Fenris, and come from the Nordic countries.

Werewolf: the Apocalypse is a roleplaying game that combines ideas of eco-fascism and eco-terrorism into an action-oriented package all about the rage we should all feel at the destruction of our planet in the hands of greedy corporations. In Werewolf, your character will burst into the boardroom and tear the people responsible in half.

Eco-fascism is built into the very structure of Werewolf. It’s protagonists live in a spirit-guided world where evil is an absolute force and the tribal societies of the werewolves are essentially paramilitary groups organized in an apocalyptic war. Dehumanized enemies can be murdered at will, since the world is always better when they’re gone. Eco-terrorism is the practical implementation of this idea.

The characters are not going to chain themselves to trees to stop logging. They will murder the loggers to the last man. The loggers are possessed by evil spirits, so it’s fine.

In my experience, when people play Werewolf, it gets watered down. The characters are humanized. The skinhead qualities of the Get of Fenris get toned down. In a lot of the books as well as games I’ve seen, there’s a strong focus on the Umbra and the cosmological, spiritual ideas of the game. They’re cool too, but often end up overshadowing the essential core mission of the werewolf: To murder the despoilers of the land.

I think this does a tremendous disservice to a game that’s at its most singular when it’s at its most extreme. When it really is a game about eco-fascist werewolves perpetually on the verge of homicidal rage.

After all, the subject matter has only become more relevant with age. We can play Werewolf while we wait for Captain Planet to come back.

Non-Digital: The Visionary Worldbuilding of 2nd Edition AD&D

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015

I started roleplaying with the Finnish edition of Dungeons & Dragons, and graduated to playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition as soon as I learned enough English to read the books.

While there’s been good and interesting stuff done in the 3rd, 4th and 5th editions of the game, for me the one true D&D will always be the 2nd edition. Not because of the rules, but because of the world.

TSR published a number of campaign settings in which the game could be played. Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, Dark Sun, Birthright, and so on. However, they were not content with just creating different fantasy worlds. They also created a unified superstructure into which all those worlds fit.

A thief hiding from a beholder in an asteroid belt. A typical scenario in the world of 2nd Edition AD&D.

A thief hiding from a beholder in an asteroid belt. A typical scenario in the world of 2nd Edition AD&D.

Crystal Spheres

In addition to the normal campaign settings published for AD&D 2nd Edition, TSR published two “meta-settings”. The first was Spelljammer, and the second Planescape.

Spelljammer is D&D in space. It presents a universe where solar systems are held in vast crystal spheres floating in a combustible substance called Phlogiston. Ships (I mean wooden sailing ships) could be fitted with a magical device called “The Spelljamming Helm” and used to travel to other planets as well as between the crystal spheres.

Best of all, all the normal campaign worlds were seen as parts of this overarching vision: You could fly your spaceship from the world of Forgotten Realms to the world of Dragonlance.

From this perspective, all the worlds of D&D were in fact the same world, sort of like the Marvel Universe of D&D. From the perspective of an individual campaign, it didn’t matter too much, but for a D&D geek like me, it was heady stuff.

A simplified diagram explaining the organization of the planes. This came with the Planescape Campaign Setting box.

A simplified diagram explaining the organization of the planes. This came with the Planescape Campaign Setting box.

Infinity

Other planes of existence had been a part of D&D from a pretty early stage, but they didn’t really come into their own until the introduction of Planescape. Like Spelljammer, Planescape connected existing worlds, this time through a structure of infinite planes composed of various moral or physical ideas.

The planar cosmology was pretty complicated. The crystal spheres composed a Prime Material Plane, which contained normal worlds. It was connected to the Inner Planes through the Ethereal Plane and the Outer Planes through the Astral Plane. The Inner Planes were organized around elemental ideas: fire, water, earth, air, life and death, as well as connecting planes, such as radiance or ash. The Outer Planes were moral, with Lawful Evil Baator and the Chaotic Neutral Limbo. The Outer Planes naturally had sublevels, which were also infinite.

In the center of the Outer Planes stood an infinitely tall mountain, and on top of the mountain floated the donut-shaped Sigil, City of Doors.

So by this point you could safely say that the world of D&D had grown pretty complicated.

A small smaple of the books you have to read to understand the world of 2nd Edition AD&D.

A small sample of the books you have to read to understand the world of 2nd Edition AD&D.

Back to Earth

In the Wizards of the Coast versions of D&D there’s been a clear shift away from all this towards a more grounded vision of the game. Published books have been more about stuff you can use in a normal fantasy campaign. Other planes of existence have been stunted and sheared into something like a spice or a topping you can use to flavor a game. They’re no longer the place where it all happens.

I understand why. All that stuff was crazy complicated, and appealed mostly to hardcore fans, at least if the sales numbers for Spelljammer and Planescape are anything to go by. The world had floated far beyond anything resembling the basic fantasy roots of D&D.

Still, I’ve never lost my love for the various infinities of the planes. When I first read Planescape, I thought it was the coolest thing ever published. Now, years later, I still appreciate the worldbuilding vision the designers of the 2nd edition had, where every place, from the Asteroid Belt to the City of Brass on the Plane of Fire, was a possible place of adventure.

Non-Digital: Becoming a Perfect Human

Monday, October 5th, 2015

An in-game photo from the larp Täydellinen ihminen, by Tuomas Puikkonen

An in-game photo from the larp Täydellinen ihminen, by Tuomas Puikkonen

Recently, me, Jaakko Stenros and Tuomas Puikkonen did a larp called Täydellinen ihminen (The Perfect Human). The idea was to delve deep into the clean, bright world of office stock photos. For a few hours, our participants would become these happy, smiling, efficient and joyful people. They would embody a certain type of corporate dream.

Me and Jaakko did the design, and Tuomas handled the photography. It was an unusual larp project in the sense that the photos were an integral part of the experience, instead of just documentation. After being a perfect human, the participants could then see themselves in actual photos, permanently part of that world.

The game was played in Helsinki on the 20th of September, 2015. Jaakko wrote a few personal reflections about the game here, and the full set of Tuomas’s wonderful photos is here.

That's me sitting in the center left, playing a client. Photo: Tuomas Puikkonen

That’s me sitting in the center left, playing a client. Photo: Tuomas Puikkonen

The game was about an ordinary Monday at the consulting firm Creative Solutions. The characters all worked there, and were thrilled to be back at work after the weekend. During the day, they met three clients (one about bottled water, the city of Salo and the Guggenheim) and had several internal meetings. That was it: No twist, no surprises, no drama.

One of the ideas behind the game was the concept of “the Soviet man”, the perfect communist citizen. A popular idea in the Soviet Union, this ideal also revealed the problems inherent in the system. The ideal human is not what we have. We just have ordinary humans.

For Täydellinen ihminen, corporate stock photos replace the paintings and statues of Socialist Realism. Instead of the noble, strong factory worker, we have the happy, innovative consultant. The perfect human of the larp is just one of the ideals we live with in today’s society. Another ideal of capitalism is a super-competitive individualist motivated by greed, but we chose to focus on creating the world as it appears in the photos. A place where teamwork and positivity are the most important qualities. This meant that in the workplace of Creative Solutions, everyone collaborated on everything, and always gave positive feedback. Meetings made the characters happy. The team was everything.

This is the magic of innovation in action! Photo: Tuomas Puikkonen

This is the magic of innovation in action! Photo: Tuomas Puikkonen

I understood the idea of using larp to generate a certain kind of visual surface after I participated in the Brody Condon larp and video project The Zeigarnik Effect in June 2015. In this, as well as earlier pieces by the same artist, larp and video have complemented each other. A larp has certain qualities that are hard to achieve otherwise, and those qualities can be captured on video, or in photos. I knew the idea, but really only realized the potential after having experienced it myself.

In Täydellinen ihminen, game design and visual design came together in the physical play style we workshopped together before the start of the game. In office stock photos, people are happy. They smile. They stand very close to each other. They touch.

In stock photos, people are close, and they're physical. Photo: Tuomas Puikkonen

In stock photos, people are close, and they’re physical. Photo: Tuomas Puikkonen

The idea was that practising these modes of being beforehand would produce the right kind of images, but also generate a certain atmosphere for the game. We forbade all subtext, hidden agendas, sex, and other distractions to focus on the game’s dream of happy, corporate efficiency and teamwork. This also made it easier for the participants to be casually physical.

Tuomas didn’t play a character and the participants were instructed to ignore the photographer, but it’s clear his presence had an impact on the in-game dynamics. When I was in the game playing a supportive character, I noticed myself and others behaving as if they were on camera even when Tuomas was not in the room. It became part of the physical, bodily language of the game.

The smile has to reach the eyes. Photo: Tuomas Puikkonen

The smile has to reach the eyes. Photo: Tuomas Puikkonen

So what does it mean to play a larp and become one of the perfect humans? I played a few supporting roles, so I’m perhaps the wrong person to explain what the experience was all about. That’s best left to actual participants.

At one point, I played a normal, non-perfect municipal representative, and it felt overwhelming to be subjected to the team’s energy. I felt like a hick who had come to the big town.

Non-Digital: Seven Larps, Seven Countries

Monday, September 14th, 2015

Alexander Norppa, the CEO of Norppa Industries, is holding a private preliminary high-level meeting before the start of the actual summit. Photo: Harmke Heezen

Alexander Norppa, the CEO of Norppa Industries, is holding a private preliminary high-level meeting before the start of the actual summit. Photo: Harmke Heezen

One of the great things about larp is that it’s such a young medium, we can do things for the first time. Exploring new frontiers of larp is easy since there’s so much that hasn’t been done yet.

I worked on the Baltic Warriors project as a larp producer this summer. We did a tour of seven countries, and ran seven larps with a loosely continuous story. The tour culminated in Helsinki this weekend with the finale, longer and bigger than the previous games.

Summit participants discuss the issues on the way to the gala dinner, unaware of the impeding zombie attack. Photo: Sigrid Reede

Summit participants discuss the issues on the way to the gala dinner, unaware of the impeding zombie attack. Photo: Sigrid Reede

Our creative producer Mike Pohjola likes to say that this has been the most international larp campaign in history, and he might well be right. I don’t really know of any others that would have reached seven countries. We also had participants from something like 16 countries. The core team worked from Germany, Finland and Sweden.

Baltic Warriors was a political game about eutrophication in the Baltic Sea. In the Helsinki game, a summit meeting about the future of the Baltic Sea, the political aspect was realized with perhaps the greatest nuance. We also learned a lot about playing in public and playing privately, and how that affects the larp dynamics with both first-timers and experienced larpers.

The zombie action was realized in partnership with the Zero Hour zombie festival. Photo: Sigrid Reede

The zombie action was realized in partnership with the Zero Hour zombie festival. Photo: Sigrid Reede

One of the things I’m happiest about in this project is the number of first time players who participated. In some games, like in Kiel, Germany, it was over two-thirds of all players, but the Helsinki game had a lot of first-timers too. Before the game, I was worried whether it was a good idea to throw novice larpers into an unguided city game where you’re supposed to direct your own experience to a large extent, but this worry proved unfounded. Indeed, the naturalism and heightened privacy of this style of larping may have made it easier for first-timers than our previous games.

One reason we were disposed to attract first-timers was probably the anomalous production structure of Baltic Warriors. Produced by the German company Kinomaton Berlin and Goethe-Institut Finnland, the initial impulse to do all of this came from outside the larp scene. I have never worked with institutions who were as motivated to do good larp as we had this time.

A debrief discussion held after the game was over at the Goethe-Institut. Photo: Sigrid Reede

A debrief discussion held after the game was over at the Goethe-Institut. Photo: Sigrid Reede

Non-Digital: How to Create a Nasty Society

Monday, September 7th, 2015

Last week, I wrote about the differences between Vampire: the Masquerade’s “game of personal horror” and the game I run, Verikartta, in which the horror has a more communal bent. The core of the matter is that for the vampires in the game, this is the only community they will ever have, so like it or not, they have to live in it.

Here are some of the ways that I used to create a nasty society:

Other Victims

The worst off are never the player characters. Indeed, people can be quite nice to the player characters, and lift them up while others are pushed down. This way, the players don’t have to experience the situation as an “us vs. the elite” situation, but instead get a broader view. They may even feel the seductive pull of joining the elite.

All photos and illustrations I use in the game are from books or off the internet. I plead private use...

All photos and illustrations I use in the game are from books or off the internet. I plead private use…

Complicated Schemes

Vampire schemes are complicated and follow their own logic. Obvious plots can’t be done because others will see through them.

For example, revenge can never target the person who actually slighted you. Instead, you must attack someone completely different, for example a protege or even someone completely unconnected who you then direct to have their own revenge against your initial opponent.

If you want to act against someone, the first step can be to go into their debt. When you owe something to them, you get closer and can then act in new ways.

Often I’ve found it useful to have supporting characters explain the schemes if they get too weird. “Obviously, this invitation cannot be a trap, because that would be obvious. Unless it’s a double-bluff, and is a trap after all…”

Counter-intuitive tactics like these make vampire plans seem baroque enough to give the feeling that people engage in them for their own sake. In-game, many of the people who do this are themselves cheerfully confused about what’s happening. The value here is aesthetic.

Violence is Embarrassing

Physical violence is a sign of weakness. It only makes sense if the victim is significantly weaker than the perpetrator. As a move in the games vampires play, physical violence is the choice of the unimaginative.

As a corollary, almost all vampires are cowards. If the situation seems to imply physical violence, they will simply not be there.

Cruelty is Fun

I read a very good book about comedy in 18th century Britain that has shaped the way I built vampire society to a great extent. Called Cruelty and Laughter, by Simon Dickie, it’s a masterclass in asshole amusements. The basic unit of comedy is cruelty, and here are some of the things that folks in 18th centuy Britain felt were simply hilarious: Beating cripples. Rape trials. Stealing from the poor.

With this in mind, in vampire society those of similar power and influence play games with each other, but with their inferiors, they simply fuck with them for fun.

What could be more funny than humiliating a Malkavian in front of all her peers or making a Nosferatu think he might have a chance with a Toreador ingenue? The key here is that these vampires don’t do these things to benefit from it, but simply for fun. Always attack the weak.

Player characters can be horrified at all this, but they also have to come up with strategies to live in this environment. In Verikartta, I had one or two older vampires who found the behavior of their peers barbaric, but this display of morality also made them outsiders in a small community.

Good Nosferatu pictures are hard to find. This one is from a Vampire book.

Good Nosferatu pictures are hard to find. This one is from a Vampire book.

Heightened Class Divisions

Vampire: the Masquerade, like many roleplaying games, is designed from the perspective of game balance. Ideally, playing any of its character types will result in equally interesting roleplaying game experiences.

I deviated from this by heightening the class divisions in vampire society. The Ventrue are the undisputed masters of this world. Even the scummiest Ventrue is still a Ventrue, and therefore part of an inside club.

The next tier is the Toreador, Gangrel and Brujah, vampire clans with their own societies and agendas, forming the “standard” level of being a vampire. The Brujah are the “loyal opposition”, who in reality keep the system going. Traditionally, every Ventrue prince has a secret Brujah lover. Below them are the two broken clans, Nosferatu and Malkavian, as well as the Tremere.

The Nosferatu are excluded because they’re ugly. For them, living as a vampire is difficult, they have to live in sewers and derelict buildings, and unless they travel with their peers, a Brujah can decide to beat one up just for fun.

The Malkavians are rare, feared and distrusted because they’re mad. A good way for a new prince to seem tough is to start a pogrom against the Malkavians.

The Tremere are powerful in a physical sense, but weak politically. They’re hard to victimize and don’t have to suffer from the humiliations the Nosferatu and the Malkavians live with, but have still been shut out of the political elites. They’re considered upstarts, and somewhat vulgar.

Vampire books are a good source of character illustrations.

Vampire books are a good source of character illustrations.

Attack Your Fans

If someone looks up to you, that person can be hurt. What could be funnier?

My favorite trick in this vein came from Marcel Proust’s book series In Search of Lost Time. There’s a lot of upper class cruelty in those novels, and Proust is very good at explaining the mechanics of how it works.

In this scene, the two important characters are both Ventrue. Lady Victoria Dynevor runs the most established Elysium in the city. Violetta Vidal is a much younger vampire who essentially wants to be Lady Victoria one day.

Lady Victoria runs a salon every Wednesday, “just for a few select friends so we talk talk freely without the bother of a big party”. Violetta has copied this and started her own salon, where she invites younger vampires she thinks are interesting. Violetta also invites Lady Victoria, but it’s assumed she won’t come. She has to be invited because to do otherwise would be an insult.

You might think that it would be a boon for Violetta if Lady Victoria indeed would show up, and conventionally this would be so. If Lady Victoria decides to come to Violetta’s salon, she can expect for this to be seen as a magnanimous act.

However, and this was why this is a great asshole move, when she shows up, she also destroys Violetta’s salon. Because of the differences in status, when Lady Victoria shows up, she will be the only focus of attention for as long as she’s present. She will suck the air out of the room and force everyone to cater to her, and the best part is that she doesn’t really have to do anything to make this happen. It’s an automatic function of the way status works in this kind of social environment.

Then she leaves, and Violetta’s other guests leave soon afterwards. Next time Violetta holds her salon, the only reason anyone is going to be there is in the hopes that Lady Victoria might appear. When she doesn’t, they’ll quickly leave. Violetta’s hope of having pleasant conversations in good company are dashed until she acquires enough social capital to make moves of her own.

Let Age Show

Older vampires have lived in their little bubble for a very long time. They all know each other. Everyone has dated everyone, everyone has fucked everyone.

When new people show up, they’re a source of intense interest. Older vampires flock to younger vampires because they’re new and interesting.

This shows most of all in romantic plots. For an older vampire, a romance with a younger vampire is all about using that person for entertainment until there’s nothing left. Then the younger vampire is discarded. For the younger vampire, there’s still a possibility of getting something out of this, because while it lasts, they can try to play the game too. The more fucked up and weird the relationship is, the longer the old vampire maintains interest.

Here it’s best to have the older vampires approach these romantic games not from a position of strength, but from a position of weakness. For them, there are toadies everywhere, and that’s boring. Since their supernatural power is absolute, they can comfortably be vulnerable in a romantic context.

This way, an older vampire doesn’t seduce someone. He maneuvers things so that a younger vampire seduces him.

Normalize Corruption

It vampire society, corruption is so normal it doesn’t really make sense to call it corruption. Everyone with a Camarilla office such as prince or primogen uses it for personal gain all the time. Mixing business and personal is also normal, and abuses of power can be done for the most trivial reasons, such as amusement.

Chelsea Wolfe is a wonderful artist, and pretty much all photos of her work as Vampire characters.

Chelsea Wolfe is a wonderful artist, and pretty much all photos of her work as Vampire characters.

Horror

In a game like Verikartta, the horror comes from the reality of living in this kind of society. It’s a subtle horror, and the characters can be very successful. The questions are, do they go with the flow and become upper class predators themselves, or do they try to hold on to some kind of decency in a society that doesn’t really put much value on it?

The thing that makes this really work is to have 90% of the inhabitants of the community essentially accept the system. Both the downtrodden and the powerful characters appearing in the game are trying to live within the limits. The last 10% consists of weak vampires who oppose the system and get crushed, and powerful vampires who criticize the system and are doomed to a life of loneliness.

Non-Digital: The Horror of Other People

Monday, August 31st, 2015

I’ve been running a game based on Vampire: the Masquerade these past few years, and when I started it, I realized I had to adapt it quite a lot to make it work for me.

I’ve run three versions of my campaign Verikartta, and characters from each game have visited the others. All are set in London, but approach the vampire society from different angles. In Verikartta A, the characters were made into vampires by important high-society vampires. In B, they were illegal vampires created in random and chaotic circumstances by criminals and losers. C, still running, is the Sabbat game, and distinctly different from the other two.

Lately, I’ve been doing something I probably should have done a decade ago, which is to read Vampire: the Requiem. It’s been interesting to see how they modified the game and compare it to what I have done.

Every supporting character gets a slide. As for the pictures, stolen off the internet, I plead private use.

In Verikartta, every supporting character gets a slide. As for the pictures, stolen off the internet, I plead private use.

Some changes are identical: In Requiem, they’ve injected the world with mystery, so instead of ancient vampires with superior knowledge of the world, we have ancient but delusional monsters who can’t separate their fantasies from real memories. Masquerade’s overarching explanations have been replaced by local mythologies.

One of the more crippling features of Masquerade is the static nature of its vampire societies, especially if you play a young vampire. In Requiem, age is not necessarily power and it’s possible for young vampires to do important things. Masquerade’s Eternal Vampire World Government has been replaced by various local situations.

Reading the book also makes it obvious to me that the Requiem and the Masquerade are very specific vampire roleplaying games, with their own themes and approaches. In Requiem, the idea of “a game of personal horror” has been brought to the fore even more strongly than in the Masquerade, and the anti-social, miserable horror of being a vampire is heightened. The inner conflicts core to the game are rigidly controlled by game mechanics, even more so than in the previous game.

My version grew sort of organically, partly designed and partly improvised, but reading this book makes me think I diverged more than I realized, especially on the core themes.

For big group events, I make a slide with the faces and names of all supporting characters present so players can know at a glance who's there.

For big group scenes, I make a slide with the faces and names of all supporting characters present so players can know at a glance who’s there.

In my version, it’s not really a “storytelling game of personal horror” at all. There’s horror to be sure, and I’m struggling to describe how it works. Maybe the “game of communal horror”? In the sense that the horrors of the world mostly make themselves manifest in the way the supernatural communities work, and how that affects individuals. All vampires play games, and the characters have to play too unless they want to be overrun. Issues of social class govern interactions both inside vampire society, and between vampires and other supernatural creatures.

When I started the game, I decided to chuck the personality rules such as Nature, Demeanor, Humanity, Virtues, the Beast, etc. out the window. Being a vampire is essentially really cool in a simple, physical sense. Requiem makes being a vampire seem like a real struggle, and I ran games like that when I originally played Vampire in the Nineties. This time, I wanted to see what would happen if being a vampire was essentially a wonderful, privileged state, especially if you let go of your morals. Almost everyone around you already has.

Non-Digital: Old School Fringe

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015

One of my pet themes recently has been how ideas in tabletop roleplaying spread, or fail to reach anyone outside a small, limited scene. Some movements have been quite successful at reaching wider audiences. The American Story Games scene is one of these, and the Danish Fastaval scene another.

A third one is the OSR, or Old School Revolution scene. Based on going back to the ideas presented in the very first roleplaying games published by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, OSR games have benefited from a lively stream of published material. You can get into it by reading book and booklets.

Finland is home to the OSR powerhouse Lamentations of the Flame Princess, but it’s not the only game in town. So to speak.

dragon union

Dragon Union is the English translation of the Finnish publication Lohikäärmeliitto. It, and a couple of other Finnish-made English-language OSR things are available from D-oom Products.

It’s a set of rules to be used on top of the classic OSR base games derived from the original D&D. It keeps the traditional set-up of the GM, the fantasy milieu and the combat rules, but adds what seems like Story Games DNA by changing the function of the character classes. These determine the story and the events to a greater degree, and create a system for managing the flow of combat. A class such as “Fighter” has not only abilities, but a function in terms of roleplaying group dynamics.

Some of the ideas are quite nifty, especially for games that use traditional concepts such as character classes and experience levels. As a bonus, the booklet has a fun fanzine feel, something it shares with the other D-oom Products publications.

mead mayhem

The particular copy of Mead & Mayhen I have is a test print made by the publisher, something the collector in me greatly approves. It’s basically a big table for creating an eventful bar fight.

One of the things I like in OSR is the reckless energy you get when everything is lethal and bizarre story complications can arise through random chance. Mead & Mayhem delivers on that theme.

temple of greed

Temple of Greed is a dungeon adventure built entirely around traps, puzzles and the concept of greed. A relevant subject in the times we live in. The adventure is supplemented by a variant on the cleric character class that looks like what would happen if Ayn Rand started designing roleplaying games. I mean that in a nice way.

I have never played many OSR games myself, but publishing stuff is key to making people aware of what you’re doing and why. That’s why I appreciate the fringe these booklets represent.

Non-Digital: Larping in the Middle of a Demonstration

Monday, August 10th, 2015

Our venue for Baltic Warriors Copenhagen was the square in front of the parliament building, Christiansborg. Photo: Juhana Pettersson

Our venue for Baltic Warriors Copenhagen was the square in front of the parliament building, Christiansborg. Photo: Juhana Pettersson

Some people do larps in highly controlled environments such as the “Black Box”, a featureless room with lights that can act as the abstract stage for any larp scene. In these games, the players can enjoy freedom from the distractions of the world and the organizers have maximum control over what happens in the game space.

Last Saturday, we did the fifth game in this summer’s Baltic Warriors series of eco larps in Copenhagen in conditions that are pretty much the opposite of that. Our game was held at the square in front of Denmark’s parliament building Christiansborg. Sharing the square with us was a demonstration against the war in Iraq, and a counter-demonstration that was also against the war but with a different political analysis.

In the photo above, you can see the anarchist counter-demonstrators.

Participants in the middle of the game. Photo: Juhana Pettersson

Participants in the middle of the game. Photo: Juhana Pettersson

As in every Baltic Warriors game, the characters were lobbyists, activists and politicians debating an issue related to the dead zones in the Baltic Sea caused by eutrophication. Every game has been about politics, but this time the politics was a little more tangible than usual, given the non-fictional political action going on all around us.

In each Baltic Warriors game, we have a local producer or producers helping us make the game. This time, we worked with the Danish company Rollespilsakademiet, and they had the necessary logistical resources to build us the tents, the benches and the tables that defined our play area.

This time, we had an unusually high number of dog participants. Photo: Juhana Pettersson

As an organizer, doing a larp in this kind of environment means that you have to make peace with the fact that anything can happen. We had wildly different estimates about the size of the demonstrations. Some said there’s be thousands of people, while others had lower numbers. We were afraid that a big demonstration would swamp us, and if a demonstration went bad, there would be further safety issues.

The way it happened, the demonstration was of a manageable size, so none of our worst-case scenarios were realized. There were no obvious cops. A lot of people stopped by to see what we were doing (or to steal our coffee). For a political game, this is of course a good thing, but it also meant that this game wasn’t about fragile intimacies.

This is what happens when you leave your guard posts unattended. Photo: Juhana Pettersson

This is what happens when you leave your guard posts unattended. Photo: Juhana Pettersson

Doing an aggressively public larp like this raises many interesting questions that can be explored further. What are the ethics of sharing a public space with another political event? Can this be used deliberately, as a central part of the larp design? What kind of new social spaces can be incorporated into a larp experience?

Our larp design was merely adapted to the venue we had, but perhaps in the future, we’ll see interesting new works that make these questions the thrust of the game.